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Learning About Heart Valve Surgery

Heart valves

What is heart valve surgery?

Heart valve surgery repairs or replaces a damaged heart valve. There are four valves in your heart. They are the mitral, aortic, tricuspid, and pulmonary valves. These valves open and close to keep blood flowing in the proper direction through your heart. When you have a problem with a heart valve, blood does not flow through the heart the right way.

During the surgery, the doctor may repair your heart valve or replace it. The replacement valve may be made of plastic, metal, or animal tissue. Whether your heart valve is repaired or replaced depends on the type of heart valve problem you have.

How is surgery done?

You will be asleep during the surgery. In an open-chest surgery, your doctor will make a cut in the skin over your breastbone (sternum). The cut is called an incision. Then the doctor will cut through your sternum to reach your heart. In a less invasive surgery, your doctor will make a cut between your ribs. Your sternum is not cut.

The doctor will connect you to a heart-lung bypass machine. This machine adds oxygen to the blood and moves the blood through the body. It lets the doctor stop your heartbeat while working on your heart. While your heartbeat is stopped, the doctor will repair or replace your heart valve. The replacement valve may be made of plastic, metal, or animal tissue. You and your doctor can decide before surgery which type of valve is best for you.

After your heart valve has been repaired or replaced, the doctor will restart your heartbeat. Then the doctor may use wire to put your sternum back together. Stitches or staples will be used to close the incision. The wire will stay in your chest. The incision will leave a scar that will fade with time.

What can you expect after surgery?

You may stay in the hospital for a few days after surgery. You will probably be able to do many of your usual activities after 4 to 6 weeks. For at least 6 weeks, avoid lifting anything that would make you strain. This may include heavy grocery bags and milk containers, a heavy briefcase or backpack, cat litter or dog food bags, a vacuum cleaner, or a child.

You may need to take 4 to 12 weeks off from work. It depends on the type of work you do and how you feel.

After you recover, you will probably feel better than you did before you had the surgery. For example, you may no longer have shortness of breath and fatigue. But you may still have some heart problems.

Your doctor may suggest that you attend a cardiac rehab program. In cardiac rehab, a team of health professionals provides education and support to help you recover and prevent problems with your heart. Ask your doctor if rehab is right for you.

After surgery, you may need to take anticoagulants to prevent blood clots. Be sure to tell all your doctors and your dentist that you've had heart valve surgery. This is important, because you may need to take antibiotics before certain procedures to prevent infection.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

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